February 1, 2009
Luke 12:13-34; Acts 4:32-37; I Tim. 6:17-19
Today is the last sermon in our series on the “economy of God”. Because of our current economic downturn we are focusing on biblical themes of money and stewardship.
I think we often hear God in new ways in times of crisis or struggle and so we are looking at what God might be saying to us during this economic crisis which seems to get worse each day.
This week again thousands and thousands more people were laid off work and this is causing major hardships for many of them.
So, this is an important time for us, as Christians, to think about money and sharing resources as we try to be the hands and feet of God in the world.
One thing we have been learning over the past few weeks from our biblical study is that God cares deeply about the poor. God loves all people the same, but God identifies in a special way with the poor and the suffering.
The unequal distribution of wealth and power is deeply disturbing to God because there really is enough to go around – if people would only learn to share.
The thing that seems to raise God’s ire the most is greed. Greed – which is hoarding more resources than you need – grieves God because it always leads to oppression and tremendous suffering.
The problem of greed was so important to Jesus that he talked about money and wealth more than any other single issue.
Last week we learned this concern for the poor was so central to Jesus – that in his inaugural sermon from Luke 4 he said – “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of jubilee.”
Jesus unleashed a new economy of jubilee – where debts were forgiven and wealth was redistributed – and he invited people from all walks of life to participate in this economy of enough for everyone.
Now, many people accepted the invitation and began to find a vibrant life, but many others resisted it.
In our scripture today from Luke 12 Jesus tells us about the legal dispute between two brothers. One brother wanted Jesus to be his lawyer and make sure he got his fair share of the family inheritance.
Jesus doesn’t really answer the man’s question but warns him about greed by saying – “watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Essentially, Jesus tells the man – however you work out your legal issues – don’t let your motivation be one of greed. Don’t let greed get lodged in your heart.
Jesus then goes on to make this same point in the parable of the rich farmer who had an “abundant harvest”.
His crop was so plentiful that his barns were not big enough, so he decided to tear down the old barns and build bigger ones.
And then the farmer said to himself – “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” In other words, he was telling himself – he could retire and live the good life.
Now, my guess is that most of us would have thought the same way. If you get some extra cash – you think about enjoying life and retiring a little early. It is called the American dream! What is the big deal – go for it!
The problem wasn’t that the man got wealthy. Neither the OT nor the NT is against wealth itself.
The problem was that this wealthy man was not “rich toward God”.
In Jewish thought “rich toward God” had to do with caring for the widow, the orphan, and fatherless.
This man was only thinking about himself and his own family and how they could benefit from this abundant harvest.
The rich farmer never considered how God wanted him to use his God-given wealth. He never considered the needs of others – it was only about his needs.
In contrast to the rich farmer, who cashed in on his good fortune entirely for himself, Jesus tells his disciples not to worry about what you will eat or wear.
Jesus says our one ambition in life is to “seek first the reign of God in the world and trust God to meet our needs – just the way animals and flowers do.”
You see the rich farmer’s mindset is the old Egyptian slave mentality that there isn’t enough to go around and so you have to get as much as you can for yourself.
Jesus, on the other hand, reminds his disciples that God knows what they need and just as God took care of the Israelites in the wilderness – God will provide for them now too.
So, these warnings about greed and the need to care for the poor permeates all of Jesus’ teachings.
The early church took Jesus’ teachings to heart and they began to practice jubilee economics.
In Acts 2 & 4 we see the church’s first experiment in practicing jubilee economics. In Acts 4:32 it says – “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostle’s feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
Now, doesn’t this story of redistribution in the early church echo the story of God feeding the children of Israel manna in the wilderness? Everybody had enough. No one had too much and no one had too little.
We see this same kind of redistribution in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church. In Second Corinthians we learn how Paul went around to different churches encouraging them to share their wealth with the church in Jerusalem.
There was a severe famine in Jerusalem and so Paul is asking the Gentile churches to help them out. Listen to what Paul writes in Second Corinthians 8:12-15:
“Give according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has – not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written – the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”
Paul’s whole theology of sharing and mutual aid within the church is based on the O.T. Manna story that there is enough to go around – it just needs to be shared.
So the early church follows Jesus’ teaching and begins to practice jubilee economics. However, it wasn’t as easy as it looks or as we would like to think.
If we go back to the book of Acts again – immediately after the story about some in the early church selling their belongings so that those in need have enough – we get another story of greed and dishonesty.
Ananias and Sapphira sell a piece of their property to help those in need. It was a wonderful act of mutual aid!
Yet, for some reason, they decided to keep back some of the proceeds for themselves – while acting as though they had given it all to help those in need.
Now, no one told them they had to sell their property and share the proceeds with those in need. It was something they discerned God leading them to do. It was their choice. They could do with the money as they pleased.
So why they lied about what they had done – we won’t ever know. My guess is – they thought if they gave it all away that they would not have enough in reserve. They were not yet ready to trust God and this new Christian community to share with them if they had a need.
So they told a lie to appear more generous than they really were.
And then in the next chapter of Acts – chapter six – we also learn that not everyone has enough – even though it said in chapter four “there was no needy person among them”.
Acts 6:1 says – “the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.”
The apostles, in distributing the food, are showing partiality to the Jewish widows over the Greek widows. The Greek widows are being discriminated against by those who have the most power in the community.
So, almost immediately, we see in these two stories the challenges of living out this new economy of Jubilee that Jesus proclaimed.
And I think the challenges the early church faced are still the same challenges we face today. Our journey of becoming a jubilee people is not easy. Sometimes we are generous and sometimes we are just plain stingy. Like those early Christians –
Most of us struggle with selfishness and greed.
Many of us feel guilty for having more than we need.
We like to look generous – even when we aren’t.
We are not sure we can trust our sisters and brothers in Christ to share with us in our time of need.
Most of us are afraid we won’t have enough.
Many times we refuse to share with those in need for fear they will misuse the money given them – as if we never misuse our money.
And most of us think we deserve our wealth because we worked hard for it – rather than seeing it as a gift from God to be shared for the good of all.
For the most part, the story of the early church is also our story. It is a story of extravagant generosity and of stinginess.
So how do we practice this jubilee economics that Jesus proclaimed and the early church tried to implement? Is it really possible to do or will we always fail?
The truth is we will fail over and over again, but the good news is that God is constantly working within us to form us into a generous and loving people.
In First Timothy 6:17-19 Paul tells Timothy to encourage the wealthy to never stop giving.
He writes – “tell those rich in this world’s wealth to quit being so full of themselves and so obsessed with money, which is here today and gone tomorrow. Tell them to go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage – to do good, to be rich in helping others, and to be extravagantly generous. If they do that, they’ll build a treasury that will last, gaining life that is truly life.”
Paul’s suggestion to Timothy for developing a generous life is to “take your eyes off yourself and focus on others”. Paul says – the Christian life is all about sharing with others and being interdependent.
In closing, I want to share a few thoughts yet about practicing jubilee economics.
First of all, I think we do need to take seriously Jesus’ warnings about greed.
As hard as it is to hear, we need to be reminded that greed sucks the life out of us and it destroys community. We live in a consumerist culture and so we will constantly be seduced with the mantra – more is better and the more you have the happier you will be.
Tonight, when you watch the Super Bowl, all those expensive commercials are designed to convince you that you need what they have to offer. So laugh at them and enjoy them, but be wary of the lies they tell.
The truth is – there are many studies that show affluence has nothing to do with happiness.
The research shows that money buys happiness right up to having some basic needs met – like healthcare, shelter, and food.
But after the basic needs are met – one’s happiness index goes down as one’s income goes up. The research shows that the richest Americans are no happier than Masai tribesmen.
Jesus warns us about greed when he says – where our treasure is – there we will find our heart.
The danger of wealth is that one can easily begin to get life from it – instead of from God. There is an addictive quality to wealth that tends to make wealthy people hoard it and forget the poor.
Research also shows clearly that the more people have – the less percentage of their income they tend to give away.
So, to practice jubilee economics we need to always be mindful of Jesus’ warnings about wealth and greed and how our possessions can possess us.
These warnings are not meant to scare us but to remind us about the abundant living Jesus has to offer us in community with other believers. It is when we die to greed that we really begin to live the abundant life.
Secondly, I think we need to take seriously the spiritual discipline of proportionate giving.
Just like the practice of “honoring a Sabbath day of rest” is a constant reminder to us that God is the source of our life – the regular practice of giving to God as an act of worship is a constant reminder that our wealth is a gift from God – it is not ours.
Giving our first fruits or the first of our income to God helps us orient our life around God’s kingdom priorities.
In the OT, the Hebrews were taught to give a tithe to God as an act of worship. A tithe was 10% of their income or of their harvest.
In the NT, the tithe was still practiced but Jesus said it wasn’t radical enough. In Matthew 23:23 Jesus says: “Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law – justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”
Jesus, here, does not condemn tithing – he just says it doesn’t go far enough. He says they should have practiced justice and mercy alongside the tithing.
I want to suggest this morning that the NT goes beyond the tithe to teach that we are to give “as the Lord prospers us”.
To give as the Lord prospers us is sometimes called “proportionate giving”.
Proportionate giving means we increase our giving as our income rises and we ask hard questions about God’s justice and mercy and how we can be more faithful stewards of God’s resources.
Elizabeth O’Conner, from Church of the Savior in Washington DC, writes this about “proportionate giving” – “None of us has to be an accountant to know what 10% of our income is, but each of us has to be a person on his or her knees before God if we are to understand our commitment to proportionate giving.”
Proportionate giving requires us to do more than simply give 10% of our income. It requires us to constantly be seeking God’s face in prayer about our finances and to ask God what we are to give and to share with others.
One of the things Marilyn and I do each year is that we sit down together and look at our income for the next year. Then we try to determine, as best we can, what we need to live on and how much we can give away. We have tried to increase our giving each year as our income has risen.
You may do it differently, but we give at least our first 10% through the local church and then on top of that we try to support other things we feel God is calling us to be part of.
We also find it helpful to have a plan and to give our first fruits to God before we pay our bills. This discipline helps us stay focused on God’s priorities and keeps us from giving out of our leftovers or giving nothing at all.
I share our practice, not because it is the best way or the right way to do it, but what we have found helpful in our journey to practice jubilee economics.
So, I would encourage you to practice “proportionate giving” as an act of worship to God and as an act of jubilee economics.
Thirdly, though, I would add that your giving must be voluntarily and according to your means.
One thing we can learn from the book of Acts and the story of Ananias and Sapphira is that giving must always be voluntary. It has to be a person’s choice and it must come from a grateful heart to be acceptable to God.
In church history, giving has not always been voluntary. There have been periods of time when people gave a tax to church. In some churches there was a “pew tax” or “pew rental”. In some places this revenue system persisted into the 20th century but now most giving is voluntary.
In writing about the Macedonian church in Second Corinthians Paul says this about them in chapter 8: 3.
Paul writes – “For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints.”
Paul says they gave voluntarily and according to their means. As Christians we are not asked to give what we don’t have.
Giving according to our means is not meant to be burdensome or offered with resistance. It is to be done with joy and hilarity!
The Macedonians saw it as privilege to share and so they were even begging to give more. How many of us are begging to give more?
The bible, instead of commanding people to give, gives examples of generous people, who through the practice of giving, have conditioned their hearts to generosity.
The stories of Levi, Zaccheaus, Barnabas, the poor widow who gave her last two coins, and the Macedonian Church are all examples of generous giving that inspire us to give generously.
For most of us, learning to give is a gradual process of conditioning our hearts and hands to generosity.
At first, giving always hurts. But like stretching any muscle, as we reach out beyond ourselves and as we grow in our ability to trust God, by exercising the muscle of giving we condition our hearts to generosity and we overcome our greed
When we give according to our means, from a cheerful heart, then our gift is acceptable to God and it blesses others.
So, let’s give generously according to our means and with a cheerful heart.
As our country, and really the whole world, goes through this economic crisis – this is our opportunity as Christians to once again demonstrate God’s love for others.
I don’t know how this crisis will affect our church or our communities but I pray that God will prepare us to be generous stewards of the resources entrusted to us.
Paul, in 2 Corinthians 8:7 encouraged the Corinthians to excel in the grace of giving by sharing with those believers struggling in Jerusalem.
He says, “now as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you – so we want you to excel also in this grace of giving.”
My prayer is that we would also learn to excel in the grace of giving – just as we excel in faith, love, and knowledge.
May God help us today to excel in this grace of giving as we learn to practice jubilee economics.